Petrol pandemonium

The government has changed its advice, but why did we panic in the first place? A psychologist expla

Any rational person in the UK who doesn't want to be left without petrol has probably topped their vehicle up recently or at least thought about doing so. After all, the people running the country, before changing their advice today, had advised drivers to do this, amid fears of a country-wide strike by tanker drivers.

When consumer behaviour changes on a mass scale in this way, the media usually work up a lather, pronouncing that the country is in the grip of "panic buying" or "mass hysteria". In fact, most drivers are behaving calmly, doing the sensible thing based on the information they've received.

The situation began a few days ago when, for political and practical purposes, the coalition government started to publicise the strike threat and talk about the contingency plans they were putting in place. The last thing any government wants is to be blamed for not planning ahead or to be accused of not giving people due warning. By putting contingencies in place and encouraging stockpiling, the coalition also presumably hoped to undermine the potential impact of a strike, thereby dissuading the tanker drivers from fulfilling their threats in the first place.

Unfortunately, the government's early announcements and warnings invoked three of the most powerful principles in the social psychology of persuasion, as outlined by the doyen of the field, Robert Cialdini, Regents' Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, in his book Influence: Science and Practice.

The first of these is "authority" - we tend to listen to people we perceive as knowledgeable or having privileged information. Despite the lousy reputation of politicians, when several members of the coalition said repeatedly that fuel could run low, many people believed them and started changing their buying habits.

Second is the "scarcity principle" - we instinctively want what we can't have and value highly that which is rare. Once people started to believe that fuel is in short supply and that it could run out, they immediately wanted it more and were willing to work harder to get it, for example by queuing or taking unplanned detours to forecourts. For other examples of this effect in action, just look at the way parents behave around Christmas time when rumours emerge that a trendy toy is due to sell out; or consider the way Concorde tickets became hot property the moment it was announced the jet would soon fly no more.

The last relevant factor is known as "social proof" or "social norms" and is perhaps the most powerful of all. Time and again research has shown that we tend to look at how other people are behaving (or how we think they're behaving) to help choose how we should behave ourselves. Take the context of binge drinking by university students, where it's been found that most undergrads massively overestimate how much their peers drink and then use this mistaken yardstick to guide their own drinking patterns.

With regard to the fuel situation, many people probably decided that they weren't too concerned and some may still feel that way. But the sight on the news of people queuing for fuel is incredibly compelling. Because it's human nature to copy each other, if we see that everyone else is filling up, we're likely to do the same. Twenty-four hour rolling news online and TV makes this factor more powerful today than ever before.

The net result of all this is that some fuel pumps around the country are running dry even though the strike may not even happen. Of course, lack of fuel in the pumps serves to fuel the news story, creating a self-perpetuating situation - though to call it hysteria or panic is hyperbole. Only now the message has been communicated from trusted sources that there's plenty of fuel, and that most people aren't stockpiling, will normal service likely be resumed.

Dr Christian Jarrett is a psychologist and author of The Rough Guide To Psychology

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era